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NEW CAR REVIEW
New Buick Lucerne bridges gap from tradition to modern
By John Gilbert, special to SNS Interactive

DULUTH, Minn. (SNS) – A friend of mine from the European ancestral melting pot called the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota identified himself simply as "a Bohunk." Years ago, when I was test-driving a Buick, he said "We call Buicks Bohunk Cadillacs."

 

The hard-working iron miners couldn’t afford Cadillacs back in the 1960s, so Buicks became the luxury pinnacle of their car-buying aspirations.

The new Buick Lucerne may rekindle that feeling.

I’ve never called anyone a Bohunk, but I guess someone who identifies himself as one can be excused for defining the reason Buicks have always been so popular among the working class. After some tough times, the Buick heritage has changed to include several SUVs, and only two cars – the year-old LaCrosse and the new for 2006 Lucerne.

We might never figure out why established names such as Regal, Century, LeSabre, Park Avenue and Roadmaster have been replaced by the monickers for a small town in Wisconsin and a big city in Switzerland, but the two cars definitely should restore Buick’s health in the value/luxury segment.

The Lucerne is big. Very long, with an enormous rear seat and trunk. As a 6-foot tall driver, I can put the seat back to where I’m comfortable, then find I can sit in the rear seat and have a full 6 inches of space from my knees to the front-bucket backrest.

In replacing half of a five-car fleet, the Lucerne is the luxury liner of the new Buick fleet, and it does the job admirably. It is slightly shorter than the full-boat Park Avenue Ultra that previously headed the Buick line, but it has a longer wheelbase, and modern designers were able to parlay that into an increase of interior room.

Similarly, the trunk is enormous. It is a definite contender for any family that needs to haul five occupants regularly, with luggage as well. The new platform is much more rigid than anything Buick ever had in its formative years, and along with much-improved suspension, the Lucerne proves a large and quite luxurious sedan can corner and handle well, with the right equipment.

The stylish exterior has a definite Buick look to the grille, which is flanked by glassed-over headlights, and the side shows very wide rear doors, and a nice slope to the roof at the rear, with a rear-end that is contemporary and looks good.

  Inside, the front bucket seats are wide and roomy, and I think the instrument panel looks good by being simple and easy to read, with the usual controls on a restyled center stack. For its size, and for what it replaces, the Lucerne is a bargain. My test car went from a base price of $28,265 to an as-tested price of $31,430.

There are, however, a couple of curiosities with the Lucerne, and its sibling relationship with its smaller and less-expensive LaCrosse.

Go back a few years, and Cadillac led the way in modernizing the whole crop of GM engines, with the Northstar V8, and the so-called high-feature V6. The 4.6-liter Northstar V8 and the 3.6-liter V6 both are treated to dual overhead-camshafts, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and assorted other features that set high-tech engines apart from more-primitive engines. It takes money to build such engines, obviously.

For over four decades, GM also has made a 3.8-liter V6, called the 3800 for its displacement cubic-centimeters.

It was a good engine when it first came out, built by Buick, and it has gotten better as the prime workhorse V6 fitted into nearly every GM sedan this side of Cadillac.

It has been renovated over the years, and we’re now up to a Stage III version of it. However, it is showing its age, and still has pushrods operating the valves.

GM considers it a good value because its performance is adequate and the cost to build it long since amortized.

Meanwhile, when Bob Lutz came to GM as vice president, he insisted that Buick designers had to throw away their attempts at making all five car models look the same and design something new. To help the brand along, he pried both the 4.6 Northstar and the 3.6 V6 away from Cadillac’s self-contained world, to be used by Buick.

Both cars come standard with the 3800, which is now called the 3.8 again.

In the LaCrosse, the 3.8 has 200 horsepower, while the upgrade optional 3.6 offers 240 horsepower, despite having smaller displacement. The 3.6 makes the LaCrosse a very impressive car, indeed.

 

In the Lucerne, the 3.8 has only195 horsepower, and can be upgraded to the 275-horsepower 4.6 Northstar V8 – the first V8 offered in a Buick since the old Roadmaster days.

The new Lucerne CXL test car I tested came with the 3.8 V6, with a four-speed automatic, and it seemed…adequate. In the current highly-competitive entry-luxury level, adequate might not do the job against so much high-tech.

My curiosity is that if the smaller-displacement 3.6 has enough added punch to be the optional upgrade over the 3.8 in the LaCrosse, why wouldn’t Buick offer the better and more potent 3.6 as the base engine in the larger Lucerne?

Standard features include four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, side airbag curtains, OnStar, remote keyless entry, rain-sensing wipers, particulate air filters on the climate control, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, leather seat appointments, and power locks and windows. It’s a lot of car for under $30,000, although installing the V8 would boost the price.

  The test car had several option packages to add eight-way power and heated seats for both front buckets, power lumbar support, chrome-plated wheels, remote starting, rear parking assist, and an audio upgrade.

At $31,430, that’s still a good deal. But I’d like to know what the sticker would say if the 3.6 V6 were available.

Whatever the difference, I would consider it a bargain, but that’s because I like the 3.6 V6 so much.

It also means that a discerning shopper will look all through the Buick dealership before buying, because if the LaCrosse is big enough, it also offers a lot for an even bigger bargain.

I’ll have to check and see which model is selling better on the Iron Range.

Editor's note: John Gilbert writes weekly auto reviews. He can be reached at cars@jwgilbert.com.